A Tale of Two Podcasts
Two popular new podcasts raise issues about privacy and sexuality
This week I listened to two extremely popular podcasts: Missing Richard Simmons from Stitcher and Pineapple Street Media and S-Town from WBEZ. I was amazed at how much these two podcasts had in common with each other and what this says about our current state of media, entertainment and journalism.
Richard Simmons disappeared from public life over three years ago. He stopped going to his gym, calling friends and making public appearances. Rumors have been flying ever since that he was ill or being held hostage by his housekeeper. The Los Angeles police visited his house to check on him after someone reported he was suffering elder abuse. A fence was erected around his Beverly Hills mansion. Richard Simmons became the Willy Wonka of fitness gurus.
S-Town is from the creators of This American Life and Serial. From central Alabama John B. McLemore, the podcast’s main figure, wrote to This American Life about police corruption and an unreported murder in the small town of Woodstock. Producer Brian Reed went down to Alabama to meet John and investigate his claim, setting in motion the events of the story.
There are many differences between these two figures. One is famous and one is not. Yet, Richard and John are subjects of podcasts with millions of downloads, without their consent. These podcasts raise issues of privacy and limits to the expectation of privacy in this information age. First-person narrative-driven podcasts create mysteries around the lives of these figures and lure in listeners with discussion of hidden sexuality. These podcasts create an expectation that listeners have a necessity or a right to the truth about these individuals. All while making a lot of money from advertisers at their expense.
Missing Richard Simmons
Richard Simmons is a public figure. He started as a fitness instructor at his exercise studio, Slimmons, in Beverly Hills. Richard has appeared in numerous exercise videos, informercials for his products, Deal-a-Meal and Food Mover. Over the past 30 years, he was a staple figure on daytime and late night talk shows, even hosting his own. He is not just a self-help and fitness guru, he is a brand. Richard Simmons cannot be separated from the product he sells. One cannot draw the line where the person ends, and the product begins, until now.
Richard Simmons receded from the spotlight. He no longer appears in his studio, tv shows, social media and public events. Dan Taberski is determined to find out what happened and to record a podcast of his search. On the Missing Richard Simmons podcast, Dan interviews dozens of people who no longer have contact with him. Many offer theories but there is nothing to support these. Richard is a man who was once famous and simply chose to remove himself from the spotlight.
Because a person is famous, is he allow to remove himself from the public? The podcast’s host argues no, at least without an explanation to dozens of his closest followers and admirers. This is what the podcast gets wrong. Richard doesn’t owe anyone anything.
Throughout the six episodes, Richard is compared to a psychologist or therapist. He is neither. A therapist, typically paid for his or her counsel, has an affirmative duty to protect the health of the patient. In general, a therapist cannot terminate a relationship with a patient without a transition or plan. Doing so could cause more harm. However Richard was not a therapist. He inspired, comforted and advised millions of people, but he doesn’t owe them everything forever. One lively session to “Turn the Beat Around” does not a duty make. All joking aside, there is no expectation that he can and should support people ad infinitum.
Dan also implies that Richard owes an explanation because he was friends with these people. Friendship relies on trust and communication, but it is a relationship and relationships end. It’s polite to give some lovers, friends, family a polite explanation while bowing out of the relationship, but it’s certainly not required. And it may not be possible. Sometimes, friendships end without explanation. It’s ok to feel sad and angry and frustrated and confused, but that doesn’t mean you are owed an explanation.
In actuality, I have a hard time calling these people in Richard’s life “friends.” The relationship seemed totally one sided and highly dependent on Richard, which makes a terrible friendship. The sheer number of people who interacted with him makes it apparent these weren’t close friendship. I coined a term “bar friends” in my youth. These are friends you hung out with and saw at the bar regularly, but you’re not going to invite them to your wedding. I feel this was more like Richard’s relationships with most people.
Have you read The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein? A boy takes and takes and takes from a tree until it’s nothing but a stump. I feel like that tree was Richard. Except if it was Richard’s story at the end a ten foot wall would be built around the stump with a sign that says “fuck you.”
In S-town, an eccentric in Woodstock, Alabama invites a radio producer down to investigate an unreported murder. He is recorded, often, and I assume he consents to the recordings. One cannot challenge that consent to recording to a radio producer means that the content could be used later. Even after Brian Reed, the producer, learns that the murder never happened, John consented to more recordings, even over the years.
However, that’s where the consent ends. After John B. kills himself, Brian continues to investigate his life. Brian even acknowledges this and concludes he decides to continue because John B. was an atheist and probably wouldn’t care since he’s dead. Probably wouldn’t is different than, affirmatively does consent. The investigation goes even further. Brian searches New York City for a former friend of John’s. He even talks to John’s former friends, lovers and family.
The most disturbing part of S-Town is that this portrait of an eccentric was mostly done after his death and serves no public interest. Unlike Serial with the death of Hae Min Lee, the murder and a possible wrongful conviction are both very much in the public interest. However, John’s life and death, inheritance battles, sexual orientation and masochism serves no public purpose except for a prurient interest. S-town is gossip, whispered into the headphones of millions of listeners.
An Expectation of Privacy
Both podcasts have investigated matters where there is an expectation of privacy. Even though the subjects of both podcasts are different, both should have their private lives kept from the public, or at least not broadcast nationally. In this time of social media, much of the public believes that all information should be available at all times for all reasons. Even a trivial reason such as “because I want to know” is given as a justification for the disclosure of private information.
Just because the story is there, does not mean that it can or should be told. Previously, gossip would only spread from person to person as interest allowed. A neighboring town who had never heard of John B. would not likely pass on the information. But with celebrity and social media, it’s easier than ever to spread gossip, rumors and information one would not normally expect. We have grown to view this information as entertainment. Reality television has made an industry about deeply embedding in the lives of others for our enjoyment. We have learned to laugh at the unfortunate, argue with the on-camera provocateurs, cry with those we sympathize. And these podcasts are an extension of this phenomena.
Unlike Reality Television, the subjects, Richard and John B., did not consent. They did not sign multipage contracts and receive compensation for their participation. Neither were paid for appearing in the podcast or being the subject of the podcast or eligible for some prize like a game show. These podcasts are proffered as journalism, investigations for the public good, though these stories have no public interest at all.
Privacy and Journalism
The most troubling part of these podcasts is they are for profit and presented as journalism. Historically, journalism has been for profit. It’s difficult work to dig up stories and present facts to the public. However, these stories are different from a Presidential scandal or a local city issue. These podcasts do nothing to serve the public in any way.
Both of these podcasts put the presenter front and center. By placing Brian and Dan in the center of the story, these podcasts change from a audio documentary to a mystery. As much as Brian and Dan play a role to “get to the bottom” of these situations, little information about them is presented in the podcast. If they weren’t at the center of these stories, the stories themselves would fall flat. Without dramatic narration, excessive editing and a first person testimonial, these podcasts would be completely uninteresting. In other words, if presented objectively, there would be no story.
But these podcasts work as entertainment because of the mystery set forth by the hosts. These podcasts become more about the quest, than the actual result. This works in two ways. It deceives the listener into believing these stories have merit or interest of the greater public. Yet it still discloses private information and makes unwilling figures the center of the podcasts.
Sexuality and “Outing”
It’s no coincidence that both of these figures have an undefined sexuality. Neither Richard or John has commented publicly on their sexuality. Their sexuality or the ambiguity about their sexuality is central to these podcasts.
Richard has never defined his sexuality in the many years he has been in the public life. Dan states quickly that he won’t comment or speculate on Richard’s sexuality. At first listen, this feels noble, ethical. Throughout the podcast, numerous comments are made about his sexuality. Richard’s performances in drag and the “freakiness” at Simmons are mentioned several times in the podcast. Just because his sexuality isn’t labeled such as gay, straight or bisexual, isn’t more noble than commenting on his sexuality and implying it might have something to do with his disappearance.
John B. alluded to sexual encounters with men and women. Though he never had sex with his friend Tyler, it’s implied that he had a sexual attraction to him and other young men throughout the years. This prompted Brian to investigate former lovers and love interests in John’s past. Despite acknowledging the difficulty of coming out as gay in the South and in a small town, Brian proceeds to effectively out John to the world without his consent. John had spoken about this in a way on the record to Brian. This was included in the podcast though it didn’t have anything to do with the suspected murder or any other public interest. Brian even sought out more information after John’s death to report on this.
The reason that sexuality was so prominent in these podcasts is to appeal to the prurient interest of individuals. The lurid details of a gender-bending, queer, masochistic lifestyle is tittilating to a listener. Strong undercurrents of non-traditional sexuality in a first-person investigation into a mystery is clearly engaging to many people. I admit that this content is appealing to me. I am hooked by these persons who don’t conform to a clean definition of sexuality. There is also something engaging about two possible asexual or celibate individuals struggling with identity and sexuality. But what is interesting, isn’t always right, especially when a profit is made on the lives of individuals who never consented or received a share of the profits.
Acceptance is rarely discussed with privacy but the two go hand-in-hand. We can’t have privacy unless we accept certain knowledge is not available to us. We live in a world where we believe we should have whatever we want, whenever we want. That is clear from these podcasts.
Dan searches for answers about Richard Simmons. He looks not just for the why, but for validation that what Richard did is not right. Who can say? Maybe the answers go hand in hand. And whether it was right or wrong, good or bad, whatever the reason, it is what it is. Richard Simmons has removed himself from public scrutiny.
Brian wanted to solve the “mystery” of John B. McLemore and his hidden gold but there is no resolution to be found. No matter how much he investigated, he never came any closer to understand the eccentric man planting a maze in his yard and restoring antique clocks. He was a complicated man, just as all people are complicated in their own way.
Ghosting is defined as “the practice of ending a personal relationship with someone by suddenly and without explanation withdrawing from all communication.” And in many ways Brian and Dan where ghosted, as many people are. John killed himself before Brian could figure out who he was. Richard left Dan without an explanation. According to a Psychology Today article “being ghosted is a phenomenon that approximately 50 percent of men and women have experienced” and an equal number have ghosted someone themselves. Ghosting is painful. It’s tough to deal with the ambiguity, especially in a close relationship, but as explained in the article “the important thing to remember is that when someone ghosts you, it says nothing about you or your worthiness for love.” In other words, it’s not about you. And John and Richard’s decisions are not about Brian and Dan.
When Brian and Dan create narratives about themselves without offering any real information, they are making the stories about them but disclosing all of the private information about the actual subjects of the stories. These are investigations into their own feels and how these individuals changed their lives. This is a selfish attempt at closure by bring public attention to two private individuals. It’s hard to accept when we don’t have clear answers or bright line rules or an objective decision if something is right or wrong. We’ve been dealing with this for centuries, millennia.
Is anyone hurt by these podcasts? John B. has passed, but there are many other people in S-Town, such as his mother Mary Grace, who could be distressed by this portrayal of her son. Richard Simmons doesn’t seem to be harassed by those wondering about why he went away. There is no clear victim of these podcasts.
If there is no victim is this work ethical? It depends. If this is journalism, the Society of Professional Journalists have a list of guidelines to assist journalists in producing reliable journalism, though there isn’t any legal requirement to follow these guidelines. There is no doubt that the reports are truthful and accurate. The content is factual and devoid of conflicts of interest. The only area where this might be an ethical concern is whether this does more harm than good. One of the principles in the ethics of journalism is “Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.”
Is this right? These two podcasters are making money off of these individuals who are not profiting at all. Their lives have been invaded. Truths that are not readily apparent have been disclosed to a large number of people. As of this writing, S-Town has been downloaded 19 million times and has 4242 rating on iTunes. Missing Richard Simmons, with 1891 iTunes reviews, “has been downloaded on average more than 1 million times a week since its release” according to First Look Media.
If you search for these podcasts, you will easily find a number of articles that as about the ethical, moral and sensational reason why either of these podcasts never should have been made. Yet, at the same time, they maintain a high number of downloads, good ratings and a healthy buzz. If people listen to these podcasts, as they are, they will continue to be made. Right or wrong or neither, these podcasts are likely to become a pop-culture staple for the next several years, or until the medium is exhausted. ▪️
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